Magazine article The Spectator

The Art of Christmas

Magazine article The Spectator

The Art of Christmas

Article excerpt

Andrew Lambirth celebrates the cards he received over the years from his artist friends.

ARTS The a r t o f Ch r i stma sed O ne of the most important and enjoyable Christmas decorations in our house is the profusion of Christmas cards. I am fortunate to number quite a few artists among my friends, and a good percentage of them make and send their own Christmas cards. Most of these tend to the secular and celebratory, but the range of image and technique is what really stands out. Literally, in the case of the sculptor Ann Christopher (born 1947), who makes wonderful little constructions of flexed and frayed silver card often decorated with stars, which balance three-dimensionally on the mantelpiece, like geometric Christmas trees. Other artists send small paintings - the abstract painter Edwina Leapman (born 1931) does exquisite stripe watercolours, the landscape painter David Tress (born 1955) sends tough charcoal snow scenes or light on winter gorse painted in acrylic and mixed media - and when these generous gifts turn up, it really feels as if Christmas has begun.

I have of course kept all these unique Christmas cards, which are now beginning to form quite a substantial collection. Among the most remarkable is the sequence from Euan Uglow (1932-2000), which I received during the last ten years of his life. I didn't know him earlier when he sent etchings or a plaster Christmas pudding, or a miniature green felt Christmas tree sitting on a domed lead base, but I did receive images of various ladies, usually printed in linocut with collaged additions. (These might include halved pistachio shells for breasts or a red felt figure-hugging dress. ) One year there was a linocut angel with sycamore seed wings, another year a figure fashioned entirely from dried rosemary and split lentils. In 1989 he sent a linocut of two camels in the desert printed on dark grey sandpaper, sprayed with gold and green. Every December Uglow produced about 300 of these highly individual and much-prized Christmas cards. One autumn he collected and dried hundreds of gingko leaves from the tree at University College and painted a head on each one. Even more memorably, his 1993 'card' was a cast lead Key of Life with a tie-on label stamped in red with 'Happy Christmas love Euan', so you'd know who sent it. But who else would have taken such trouble?

By contrast, his friend Craigie Aitchison (1926-2009) favoured bought cards of varying degrees of kitsch attractiveness, and was violently against sending reproductions of his own work, even when given packets of Christmas cards decorated with his paintings. Their contemporary Jeffery Camp (born 1923) used to print large and elaborate linocut Christmas cards in the 1960s, but has only occasionally sent any kind of festive greeting in recent years; though when he does, it is a generous gift, such as a drawing and a tiny oil painting mounted together on black card. John Craxton (1922-2009) used to send printed images with hand colouring, often enhanced with terrible puns, both visual and verbal.

Other artists make prints that can be more easily reproduced. John McLean (born 1939), a witty and inventive painter, used to make potato prints, the most simple and primitive of printing methods, still favoured by artists who don't mind the nursery implications of the medium. I have an unsteady caravanserai of overlapping camels that McLean sent one year, but his Christmas card list has grown so extensive that he now designs a rubber stamp each year and prints his cards from that. Rose Hilton (born 1931) makes her own linocuts in a single bright colour, with perhaps some hand-colouring or collage additions, or a scatter of glitter or gold stars. …

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